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How David Beckham Became the Most Marketable Man in the World

How David Beckham Became the Most Marketable Man in the World
07 Jul
12:33

David Beckham is sitting inside an industrial-looking London hair salon. Gazing intently at his own reflection, he works pomade through his long, highlighted hair and applies beard oil to the perfectly-ratioed scruff that frames his chiseled jawline.

“I think it’s important to not take style or fashion too seriously,” Beckham says to the camera, flashing a boyish, knowing grin. “You only really need a couple of good products and a good point of view.”

This is a scene from a promotional video for House 99, a beauty line the 43-year-old former soccer player launched a few months ago with L’Oreal. In the ad, Beckham wears a brown leather bomber jacket that covers most of his tattoos, though the camera makes sure to zoom in on his hands, where there’s inked script of his wife’s name. It also frequently cuts from shots of Beckham to London’s graffitied streets, underscoring his still-edgy appeal, though Beckham’s bad boy persona has softened with age.

As the commercial winds down, Beckham shrugs nonchalantly while he delivers his kicker: “When you take care of yourself, you look good. And when you look good, you feel good.”


A brand image from House 99, David Beckham’s L’Oreal line.
Photo: House 99

Beckham doesn’t share much about House 99’s products — how they feel or smell, or what he likes about them. He doesn’t have to. The promo nails its agenda: selling Beckham, the man. He radiates confidence with an underlying hum of seduction. L’Oreal knows that his name and face are enough to make the grooming line fly off shelves at Ulta, where its sold in the US, and at stores like Harvey Nichols and Boots in the UK.

“David is one of the most well-groomed men on earth,” says Chenaya Devine Milbourne, a marketing manager at L’Oreal who works on the House 99 brand. “He’s the perfect partner for L’Oreal, having been an icon of grooming since the beginning of his football career.”

It isn’t common for a beauty giant like L’Oreal to tap a male athlete for an advertising campaign, let alone his own line. But Beckham is no ordinary sports star, and the business of Beckham isn’t ordinary either. He may in fact be the world’s most marketable man.

Beckham displayed an interest in style early on

Beckham started his soccer career playing for Manchester United in 1992, winning six English Premier League titles and two Football Association Cups during his 11 years with the team. During this period, he also started a six-year stint as captain of the English national team and made two of his three FIFA World Cup appearances.

At the same time Beckham was becoming one of football’s most admired players and Manchester United was dominating the sport, England also became home to one of the best-selling girl bands of all time. Beckham met Victoria Adams in 1997, the same year the Spice Girls went platinum with their second record, Spice World. Two years later, their son Brooklyn was born and the pair got married. The relationship catapulted Beckham to true A-list — not just sports A-list — status, and he started to dress the part.

“I don’t think you can minimize the influence and shine of being involved with, and married to, Victoria,” says Lainey Lui of celebrity news site Lainey Gossip. “Even when he became a big soccer star, he was still a small-town kid before she came along. His glamour was only because of Victoria. It was only because of her that he was able to begin to rise above his cohort.”

“Posh and Becks,” as they’re still lovingly called by fans, were all over red carpets, parties, and awards shows. Beckham had one cleat-clad foot solidly in the celebrity world, and his public appearances with Victoria became events unto themselves, with the couple often showing up in matching outfits (like leather Versace bodysuits or bright purple wedding attire) that made photographers and fans go nuts.


Posh and Becks at a party in London in 2000.
Photo: PA Images/Getty Images


The couple in their much-discussed matching leather bodysuits.
Photo: Justin Goff/Getty Images

“When the two of them got together, they became this brand,” says Lui. “It was like a visual explosion of beauty and also tackiness. She gave him permission to become creative and move into a different lane.”

After all, Beckham wasn’t just rolling with any Spice Girl — he married the Posh one. This meant gaining access to designers and experimenting with his look (he once famously wore a sarong), effectively evolving the buzz around him to be about his style instead of his soccer skills. Beckham also became known for his ever-changing hair: cornrows, frosted tips, bleached locks, mohawk, mullet, shaved head, man bun, ponytail, headband — he had it all.

“He was the biggest risk-taker on his hair, and a lot of what soccer players do now was started by Beckham,” says Zito Madu, a reporter who covers soccer for SB Nation. “He even wore a durag one time, but there was no backlash because Beckham was so beloved and people knew he wanted to be expressive with his hairstyle.”

Beckham’s memorable hair and wild clothing choices were mocked plenty. (“At long last the world has a male fashion victim to laugh at,” the Independent’s then-fashion editor wrote in the paper.) But he also ignited a larger discussion about men and self-presentation, says Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, a professor of marketing at London College of Fashion. The journalist who coined the term “metrosexual” even wrote an entire essay explaining how Beckham was the now-retrograde term’s ultimate example.

“In the late ’90s, the football crowd in the UK was just starting to become fashion-conscious, and he helped that tribe become interested in fashion,” says Radclyffe-Thomas. “It used to be a bit dodgy for a man to be vain, and he got a lot of attention for it, bad and good. But I think he brought this conversation to his cohort and peer group, and it ended up being the backbone of the branding of the whole Beckham universe.”

Beckham set up his second act to focus on fashion

During Beckham’s 20-year professional career, he made a name for himself as a midfielder with an uncanny ability to kick a soccer ball in one direction and have it “bend” in another. (This is, of course, where the 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham got its name.)

After more than a decade with Manchester United, he went on to have a successful four-year run with Real Madrid and played in his last World Cup. Then his career shifted in a serious way: In 2007, he joined the LA Galaxy, a team in the US’s fledgling Major League Soccer. Leaving behind some of the best teams in Europe, and thus in the sport, for a much less prestigious league signaled that his soccer star was waning.


Fans greet Victoria and David Beckham at the Los Angeles airport in 2007.
Photo: LA Times/Getty Images

There had been rumblings that Beckham’s celebrity status was overshadowing his athletic career; the year Beckham moved to the States, then-Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson told the BBC the “getting married into that entertainment scene was a difficult thing” for Beckham, adding that while “he is such a big celebrity, football is only a small part.”

He touched down in LA with a $250 million deal with the Galaxy as a means of increasing America’s interest in soccer (which he’s largely credited with doing), and led the team to two MLS Cups. But as Grant Wahl wrote in his book The Beckham Experiment, Beckham’s record in LA “turned into a disaster, brought low first by injuries and then by epic losing.”

This didn’t seem to bother Beckham. Off the pitch he made his rounds on late-night talk shows dressed to kill, hung out at the Chateau Marmont with Tom Cruise, partied with Janet Jackson, and played basketball with Eva Longoria’s NBA player husband, Tony Parker. Celebrities “clamored to rub shoulders” with the soccer player and his pop star spouse, according to the LA Times. America turned Beckham into Hollywood royalty and allowed him to escape the working-class roots that England wouldn’t let him forget.

“In the UK Beckham is ridiculed by the chattering classes and dismissed as a vulgarian,” the Independent wrote. “On television, he suffers the indignity of being portrayed as a halfwit … But in the US, there is no class system. When Beckham opens his mouth (and Brits hear purest Essex) Americans think they’re talking to a cultured Englishman.”


Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes threw the couple a welcome party in LA; Will and Jada Pinkett Smith were in attendance.
Photo: Tony Canham/Getty Images

It also helped that his look leveled up. The Beckhams traded in style risks for safer, understated fashion sensibilities. In 2008, Victoria launched her own namesake fashion line. She came to her brand with seriousness, and after some initial doubts, her line received critical acclaim. Thanks to his wife, yet again, Beckham had access to a new stage: the exclusive fashion world. You could now find him sitting front row at runway shows in New York and Milan.

The naysaying British press even admitted that out of the ashes of his early sartorial missteps, “a phoenix arose.” Beckham started wearing perfectly-tailored suits on the red carpet. For his off-duty outfits, he chose relaxed joggers or designer jeans paired with crisp T-shirts and clean, classic sneakers. He also swapped out his wackier hairstyles for a subtly-highlighted ’do he kept neatly slicked back.

The timing of Beckham’s style rebrand was impeccable. He retired in 2013 at the age of 38; most soccer players age out of the sport by the time they hit 40, and Beckham needed a second act. With his good looks, designer wife, and global celebrity status, fashion was practically low-hanging fruit for Beckham. And so he reworked his image with the help of Simon Fuller, his manager and longtime business partner who also managed the Spice Girls, created American Idol, and discovered Amy Winehouse.


Posh and Becks’ sleeker style on display at the 2008 ESPYs.
Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images

Fashion and luxury good partnerships came rushing in. In 2012, Beckham launched a line of bodywear with fast-fashion company H&M, complete with cheeky ads featuring the former footballer running around in his knickers; he’s designed several men’s fashion collections with H&M since.

The next year, Beckham was tapped to promote a partnership between car company Bentley and watch brand Breitling. British heritage brand Belstaff asked him to star in its fashion campaigns, and then gave him his own fashion collection. Jaguar hired Beckham to promote its cars.

Diageo even had him develop a new whiskey brand called Haig Club, which he also starred in ads for, decked out in a tailored three-piece suit and the Hitler Youth haircut he sported for much of the 2010s (which subsequently became the haircut of choice for men). While Beckham debuted his first fragrance with Coty way back in 2005, the line expanded to 12 different fragrances for those hoping to smell like the handsome Brit. For those wanting to dress like him, there’s Kent & Curwen, the 91-year-old British sportswear brand that he’s partly owned since 2015 and which relaunched late last year.

Beckham is now a bona fide tastemaker. A beauty executive who launched high-end tweezers for men in 2016 told WWD that “the ultimate goal for many men is to replicate David Beckham’s brows.” Devine Milbourne, the marketing manager behind Beckham’s grooming line House 99, says L’Oreal research found that his hairstyles are the most popular subject of men’s beauty videos on YouTube.

“We want to be where millennials and Gen Z are, and David is someone that people look up to,” says Devine Milbourne. “He defines looking good.”

Beckham built a new image that wasn’t contingent on sports

Beckham is arguably the first — and perhaps only — person to fully transcend the world of sports and become a full-on celebrity independent of his athletic career.

He is by no means the athlete that’s made the most money from brand partnerships. This year, Forbes named tennis’s Roger Federer the top-earning brand-endorsed athlete, with $65 million in deals. (Cleveland Cavalier Lebron James came in second with $52 million and Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo third with $47 million.) Forbes only ranks active athletes, and in the year Beckham retired from soccer, he was considered the fifth most-endorsed athlete, netting $42 million from his brand deals.

There’s also Michael Jordan, king of the sports empire, despite whatever Kanye West claims. His Nike sub-brand, Jordan, is a multi-billion dollar juggernaut that puts out clothing and shoes. Last year, Nike sold $3.1 billion worth of Jordan-branded sneakers alone.


Beckham unveiling a shoe he designed with Adidas, 2005.
Photo: Jemal Countess/WireImage/Getty Images

But the key word here is “sports.” All of these athletes have largely stayed within the world of sports brands when it comes to endorsements and partnerships, or worked with more general consumer goods companies. Other than Nike, for example, Jordan has partnered with Gatorade, Hanes, and 2K Sports. James has a lucrative Nike deal of his own, as well as deals with Beats by Dre, Kia, Samsung, and McDonald’s.

As Madu notes, athletes have a hard time breaking out of the sports mold. “You get boxed in, and people can’t see you for anything else,” he says. “You’re known to kick or throw a ball, and it’s hard to become a legitimate star.”

Even Ronaldo, who has modeled underwear and jeans for Armani and is endorsed by watch company Tag Heuer, hasn’t conquered fashion like Beckham has. He’s partnered with Portuguese luxury brand Sacoor Brothers and has his own fashion line called CR7, but the majority of the brands on the long, weird list of endorsements are not in the fashion or luxury spaces.

The business of Beckham, on the other hand, no longer relies on sports at all. Of course, it once did: While he was still a professional athlete, he had the requisite endorsements from Pepsi, Burger King, Gillette, and Samsung. During this time he also scored a lifetime endorsement deal with Adidas that earned him a reported $160 million.


An ad for the Bentley-Breitling collaboration.
Photo: Bentley/Breitling

Now Beckham works with fashion, beauty, and luxury car and alcohol brands, making money by licensing his name and image all over the world to companies that are worlds away from sports. DB Ventures, the company that manages his partnerships with the likes of Coty, Belstaff, H&M, Bentley and more and is run by Simon Fuller, earned 18.75 million pounds, or about $25 million, in 2017.

He also hosts events for brands like Louis Vuitton during London Fashion Week. Last month, the British Fashion Council announced it was appointing him its ambassadorial president, a role created just for him with the goal of boosting the profile of British fashion brands. All of this trades on his personal style and taste — not his soccer career.

Beckham is a universal sex symbol

It needs to be said: David Beckham is hot.

Soccer players in general are often noted for their hotness. The World Cup is thirst trap season, with sports coverage frequently accompanied by in-depth reports on attractive players. Researchers have even studied the correlation between soccer players and the sexual attraction they inspire.

One scientist from the University of Zurich’s Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies compared soccer players’ bodies to sculptures of Greek gods, noting that their powerful thighs and lean physiques are “in line with our traditional impression of beauty and what an ideal body can look like.”

Another pointed to the emotions that are easily visible in the game, since soccer players don’t wear helmets, or much gear at all for that matter. Jumping into each other’s arms, weeping on their knees, faking injuries to gain sympathy: Researchers found that these “pride displays after success, and even shame displays after failure, will likely increase their attractiveness.”

But this is about Beckham, and did we mention Beckham was hot? It’s not just his physical appearance that makes him so attractive, nor his on-field persona. Teri Agins, a former fashion reporter for the Wall Street Journal and author of Hijacking the Runway, credits Beckham with having an unmatched “It factor.”


David Beckham, noted hot person.
Photo: James Devaney/Getty Images

“It’s the way he carries himself, and his charisma,” says Agins. “This guy has an incredible amount of swagger. Tom Brady is handsome, but he doesn’t strut the way Beckham does. He has incredible presence.”

Sex sells, of course, and fashion in particular has been able to capitalize on Beckham, says Agins, because he “knows how to wear clothes well.” Plus, he’s British. Yes, this is a real thing: Psychotherapists have found a scientific connection between English accents and the allure Americans see in them.

Race is also an important factor. Beckham is considered a global object of lust because white beauty standards have been internalized worldwide. While the stylish stars the NBA produces — Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumperthave infiltrated fashion, as black men, they aren’t marketed the same way Beckham is. “Beckham is universally sexy, and being white helps,” says Agins. “Yes, Michael Jordan can look sexy in black tie, but he’ll just never be the sex symbol that David’s become.”

You don’t have to want to date Beckham for his charm to work. Straight men are drawn to his It factor too, which is why he is an easy pick for promoting typically-masculine categories like whiskey and luxury cars. “Even guys who are super macho are into Beckham because he proved to be a beloved athlete and also made it look cool to take care of yourself,” says Madu. “He’s never going to advertise for something in sweatpants because Beckham is trying to make a point: He’s cool and professional.”

A proud father of four, Beckham has added another dimension to his sex symbol status — the DILF. The paparazzi shots you see of Beckham these days paint him as a family man, always with kids in tow, and his social media accounts are rich with snapshots of #DadLife. It’s endearing, if not pretty calculated, notes Lainey Gossip’s Lui. He also makes regular appearances on the feed of his oldest son, Brooklyn.

“You’ll often see him standing behind Brooklyn on Instagram, and it’s almost like a reminder that he’s the Don of Brooklyn’s style,” says Lui. “The new generation looks up to these godfather types, and I think he’s trying to ride it through as the original.”

Beckham’s paternal persona is particularly appealing to his original fan base.

“His peer group are middle-aged guys who are thinking about aging, but don’t consider themselves old,” says Radclyffe-Thomas of London College of Fashion. “They care about looking good, and he’s a good idol for them because he’s an alternative to a frumpy dad. He can genuinely seem like the cool dad going on a school run, and he’s aspirational because he looks good doing that.”

You can see this type of Beckham fan in his business ventures, she adds: “He’s not pushing anything too fashion-forward or controversial because he knows these guys aren’t trying to be at the forefront of style. It’s not about speaking to the guy with a midlife crisis. The brands who work with him will target the modern man that finds how to dress confusing.”

That’s not to say millennials don’t drink the Beckham Kool-aid. (Ahem. Hi.) Beckham knows where the kids (well, youngish adults) are, joining Instagram in 2015 with a selfie in honor of his 40th birthday. He broke a record for fastest-growing account, amassing 5.5 million followers in a week; he now has almost 48 million.

His most recent work at his position at the British Fashion Council involved mentoring and inspiring young creative talent. Perhaps the fact that the Beckham branding remains solid, even as he ages, is a testament to the true inequality of Hollywood. Or maybe it signals another way the rules don’t quite apply to him — nobody bends ’em quite like Beckham.

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